A new show picks up on the hit 1993 film – and joins Pretty Woman and Moulin Rouge! in rehashing the idea that women are prizes to be won
The semi-oedipal deal between Marty McFly and his mother in Back to the Future takes on a new note when you sing it, as in the recently opened West End musical.
The past is never dead. It certainly feels that way given the current theater trend of reverently reviving popular films from the 80’s and 90’s in musical form. These shows often show how much – or how little – has changed in recent years. And the more popular the title, the fewer questioned attitudes are shown. This can sometimes lead to an uncomfortable tension.
Remove the pop medleys and broadway import Red Mill!, soon to open at London’s Piccadilly Theatre, is about a courtesan whom a wealthy duke wants to own.
Pretty Woman: The Musical at The Savoy Theater recreates the film’s key scenes and lines for fans who know it inside out and adds a few Bryan Adams songs, but it’s still essentially a film about a wealthy man who buys a woman .
The film was shot in 1990; Thirty years later, the sight of a contemporary West End production laced with awkward blow job jokes resonates differently. Does London really need another show on the same subject?
The creators of the upcoming chamber musical Unmoral offer would argue that we do. The 1993 film was directed by Adrian Lyne who is best known for Fateful attraction. It came at the end of a wave of glossy Hollywood adult thrillers such as 9 1/2 weeks (also directed by Lyne, who was clearly the go-to director for mainstream cinema erotica) and primal instinct.
In the film, millionaire John Gage, played by Robert Redford, offers Woody Harrelson’s financially struggling architect David $1 million for a night out with his wife Diana, played by Demi Moore. It was a film designed to start conversations and ask audiences, “What would you do for a million dollars?”
The show was originally due to open last summer but instead begins on November 2 at London’s Southwark Playhouse. Michael Conley, who wrote the lyrics for the stage show, has not seen the film. Instead, he’s gone back to the source material, Jack Engelhard’s pulpy 1988 novel, which is very close to its time.
“It’s a very intimate story. It’s a very human story,” says Conley, an American performer, author, and lyricist. He hopes audiences can watch the show and wonder what they would do in that situation. He set out to make it “a real story about a real couple, because that’s what intrigued me — dealing with the proposal and the ramifications of the proposal and the decision one way or the other.”
It’s arguably the premise that people remember the film rather than the film. Although it grossed $266 million at the box office, it’s not a title that many people appreciate. This gave Conley more room for maneuver: The question of how wealthy people use and abuse their power is no longer relevant since the book was written – on the contrary.
“It’s extreme, of course,” says Conley, to whose earlier work he is a part The sufferings of Satan, who transplanted the Faust story to 1920s London ravaged by every form of corruption The fabulous fox sister, via a Victorian medium that convinced the world it could communicate with the dead.
“This is theatre, and everything is heightened. But these are things that still happen. That’s exactly why we need to talk about it.”
The show’s director, Charlotte Westenra, agrees: “I think stories about power and abuse of power are always relevant. We are talking more than ever about consent and systemic moral corruption, but there is still work to be done.”
In the novel, the young husband is Jewish and the millionaire is a Middle Eastern Muslim named Ibrahim Hassan. Instead of exploring the complex intersection of race, religion and power, Conley deviates from the filmmakers before him. “It didn’t feel like a story to tell,” he says.
The book’s focus on the couple’s financial and marital woes intrigued Conley the most, as did the setting of late ’80s Atlantic City—the casinos, the gamblers, the atmosphere. The musical’s protagonist, Jonny, is now a struggling singer-songwriter who performs at the city’s casino resorts. his wife Rebecca also works in a casino.
Conley made the decision to root the show in its time rather than update it: “Keeping it in its time and place gives it a distance. We would ask a lot more questions about it if it happened today. I think we’ve learned a lot in recent years, especially since the late 1980s.”
One of the lessons I hope will be learned is how to approach intimacy issues onstage in a way that is safe for everyone involved, and how to recognize the responsibility of making sure the actors are comfortable.
“The well-being of the actors is paramount and we do everything we can to make them feel safe,” explains Westenra.
Exploring the transactional nature of relationships is arguably part of the musical theater tradition. Again and again the value of the woman is reduced to the material.
It’s there in “Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend” by Gentlemen prefer blondes – a recurring song red mill, whose plot line resonates Unmoral offer. It’s off in the hollow come-on of Sweet Charity’s Hey Bigspender (a musical that tests its heroine so hard it’s hard to take these days) and Matchmaker, Matchmaker violinist on the roof, with its deeply somber final verse (“You heard he’s got a temper/He’ll hit you every night/But only when he’s sober/You’re fine”). And it’s in Paint your carwhen a woman is auctioned.
Could one argue that Unmoral offer is just a clearer excavation of a theme that runs right through musical theater history, but at the same time it’s tiring to see the trope constantly being rehashed on stage and screen. Doesn’t it just ingrain the idea that women are prizes? Or does it make sense to unpack these topics from the perspective of the 21st century?
According to Conley, musical theater is the perfect form to explore delicate moral issues. “When something is sung, you tend to believe in it,” he says. “But sometimes it’s about what’s not said and what’s not sung. We never say what we mean. If there’s tension there, I think that’s the best thing in the world.”
Unmoral offer is at the Southwark Playhouse, London (020 7407 0234) until November 27th